Two months ago today I launched Pith & Power, an illustrated exhibition celebrating the life and works of Robert Burns at the Saltire Society in Edinburgh.
Most Saturdays I sat in the exhibition, working on new illustrations and speaking to visitors. I spoke to locals as well as people from many other countries, keen to find out more about Scotland’s famous bard.
International knowledge of Burns was more widespread than I anticipated. An environmentalist from Germany told me how ‘To a Mouse’ gave her a deep love of nature. A Canadian couple told me how Burns Nights brightened their winters back home. A Danish family spoke to me about the similarities between Scots and Scandinavian languages. A French historian recognised the spirit of Liberté, égalité, fraternité in ‘A Man’s A Man’.
What people said they liked about Burns was that distinctness of Scottish culture mixed with an international outlook. Some remarked how different this was to their perception of Britain in recent months. Burns, to them, indicated that Scotland had its own distinct contribution to make to the world. The Scots language was no real barrier to their understanding of his work. In fact it made their understanding all the more profound.
It has been a pleasure to hold this exhibition at the Saltire Society, and to have so many conversations about Burns, politics, language and culture with such a broad variety of people from all over the world. The Saltire Society are a real asset to Scotland’s cultural life and have been kind and accommodating hosts. For me the exhibition has been a valuable opportunity to showcase a side of Burns often lost in traditional Burns Suppers, and it has kept me busy through the winter. Now the snow has thawed and the spring is finally here, and there’s much more work to be done.
P.S. A highlight for me was being interviewed by the Scots Language Radio, a video of which can be found below.
How did Scotland lose its independence in the 18th century? And what did Robert Burns have to say about it? It’s one of the subjects of ‘Pith & Power’, a new exhibition on display at the Saltire Society in Edinburgh which examines Burns’ relationship with politics and power.
In 1707 a Treaty of Union was proposed to unite England and Scotland into Great Britain, ending centuries of Scottish independence. Burns famously criticised Scotland’s parliamentarians who accepted the Treaty, calling them ‘a parcel of rogues’ and accusing them of accepting bribes.
But pith and power, till my last hour,
I’ll mak this declaration;
We’re bought and sold for English gold
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!
When the Union took effect on 1 May 1707 the bells of St Giles’ Cathedral rang to the tune Why should I be so sad on my wedding day? capturing the sorrowful mood of the population. Several towns and cities were also overrun with protesters.
On the same day a number whales took a wrong turning in the Firth of Forth and beached themselves on the coast of Kirkcaldy. According to tradition the number of whales matched the number of parliamentarians who approved the Treaty, and this was taken as an ill-omen for the Union. Six years later Scottish MPs made an unsuccessful attempt to reverse the Treaty, arguing it had not brought the expected benefits to Scotland.
Following the Act of Union many Scottish writers began to drop their distinct Scots language as English became the dominant language of business and government. Burns rejected this idea and worked to emphasise the distinctness of Scots culture and literature.
In his ‘Address to Edinburgh’ Burns is excited by the effect the Scottish Enlightenment on Edinburgh. He talks of a new spirit of ideas, particularly around justice, learning and science. But he also laments Edinburgh’s loss of capital status in the aftermath of Union, mourning the city’s loss of ‘Legislation’s sovereign pow’rs’.
‘Pith & Power‘ is on display at the Saltire Society in Edinburgh, Mon – Thurs, 12-4pm till 15 March 2018. Free entry.
Photographs from Pith & Power, a brand new exhibition celebrating the legacy of Robert Burns, which was launched at the Saltire Society in Edinburgh on Burns Night 2018.
The exhibition will be open Mon – Thurs, 12pm – 4pm until 15 March 2018. Free entry.
Hear more about the exhibition in this short film produced by Scots Language Radio (12 minutes in):
Like brethren wi’ a common cause,
We’d on each other smile, man;
And equal rights and equal laws
Wad gladden every isle, man.
Discover the political poetry of Robert Burns with Pith & Power, a brand new exhibition launching at the Saltire Society in Edinburgh on 25 January 2018.
Burns was a humanitarian poet who wrote against oppression and injustice. Pith & Power aims to rediscover the profound meaning behind Burns’ poetry, examine his relationship with power and celebrate his ongoing influence in the Scottish imagination.
Exhibition open 25 January – 15 March, Mon – Thurs, 12pm – 4pm, and the first two Saturdays (27 Jan and 3 Feb, 12pm – 4pm). Free entry.
Launch event: Join us at 7pm on Burns Night, 25 January 2018 for the launch of Pith & Power. Reserve free tickets by calling 0131 556 1836 or emailing email@example.com
Find the Saltire Society at 9 Fountain Close, Edinburgh. Enter via Tweedale Court or Fountain Close opposite Scottish Storytelling Centre.
It was a pleasure to unveil one of my drawings as a wall mural in Joanna Cherry MP’s constituency office. The mural depicts an Edinburgh skyline with Calton Hill in the foreground. A closer look reveals figures with banners marching and assembling on Calton Hill, a nod to the hill’s special place in political history as the site where devolution campaigners first held their Vigil for a Scottish Parliament, and where the new parliament was originally to be situated. In 2013 an unprecedented rally was also held in favour of Scottish independence. The drawing first appeared as a double-page illustration in my book, Summer of Independence: Stories from a Nation in the Making, a grassroots account of the run-up to the 2014 referendum. It’s great to see the picture come off the page and given new life on a more generous scale.
The mural appears as a background in a short feature on LGBT MPs on BBC One’s Victoria Derbyshire programme, 31/08/17.
Join me on Saturday 22nd April in Tortosa, Catalonia, for a bilingual talk in Catalan and English on my book and the cultural campaign for independence.
See the write-up by Catalan journalist Oriol Gracia here.
Please join me for the launch of ‘Freedom Come All Ye’, a new art exhibition exploring ideas of nationhood and determination. The exhibition launch will take place on Saturday 8th April from 2-3pm, Free Space Gallery, 7 Easter Road, Edinburgh. I will also be signing copies of my book, ‘Summer of Independence’. Prints of some artworks will also be available.
The exhibition will be available to view at Free Space Gallery until Sunday 30 April. Opening times: Wednesday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm.